The Earl's Intended Wife
by Louise Allen
(Harl. Regency Hist., $5.50, PG) ISBN 0-373-29393-3
****
Hebe Carlton is living an enjoyable, if not exciting, life on Malta with her stepmother when she meets a most interesting man. Major Alex Beresford is a British officer acting as a courier; his duties, however, don't quite add up. When they first meet, Major Beresford is a dinner guest. Hebe notices his obvious fatigue and maneuvers him into the garden for a short rest. Alex finds himself drawn to this intelligent young lady with the most intriguing face and demeanor.

Hebe is no classic beauty, as she knows all too well. But she keeps meeting Alex in unusual circumstances, and her suspicions that he's no ordinary courier are soon confirmed. Alex finds he can't stay away from her, and a romance blossoms. Then unthinkable happens. A letter arrives from England. Lady Clarissa Duncan has accepted Alex's proposal of marriage, made long ago before he left England. Since Lady Clarissa had put Alex off and never answered him, he'd pretty much forgotten about her - and the proposal. Why would Lady Clarissa, an acknowledged Beauty, consent to marry a lowly second son of an earl?

Honor dictates that Alex must return to London and Clarissa. At the same time, Hebe's stepmother agrees to marry a longtime friend, and she would like Hebe to experience a London Season, courtesy of Hebe's aunt. They all travel together as far as Gibraltar, and Hebe will go on to London from there. Alex is on board the same ship, much to Hebe's consternation.

The ship encounters a storm in the Mediterranean, and Hebe and Alex are washed overboard. They come ashore on a beach in France, and Alex's contacts in Spain will help them - if they can get that far. If they are caught by the French, they will surely hang. What follows is an adventure-romance, as Alex steals a mule and clothing, they cross over a mountain ridge, shelter in a cave, and end up making love, though Alex is unaware of it. (This is plausible under the circumstances.) But Hebe has no desire to trap Alex into a marriage he'd surely resent.

I enjoyed this story, and Alex and Hebe are refreshingly adult characters. The author does a good job of making their longing for one another crystal-clear. Alex is well-portrayed as a man whose choices are being stripped away, as he must live by the strict code of Regency honor. Hebe is delightful, a woman of unusual attractiveness who only needed to find the man who can see it. To Alex, she's irresistible.

The "road adventure" seemed to drag on a bit. Some readers might be put off by the notion of a well-bred young lady riding a mule, attending to a sick man, and camping out in a cave, but Hebe is just unique enough as a character that it worked. She simply gets on with the business of survival and leaves the social repercussions for later, and in the wartime setting, it rings true. There are consequences of their trip, and Hebe's handling of this is another highlight of the story. If only all romance heroines could be this clear-headed, we'd have a lot fewer books thrown in the trash in disgust.

If you've a yen for an enjoyable Regency-set romance that takes place somewhere other than London, pick up The Earl's Intended Wife. Louise Allen has a treat in store for you, and a hero and heroine you'll take to your heart.

--Cathy Sova


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